Recognising the best performers in Indian cricket and rewarding them for maintaining those high standards. This was the idea behind the BCCI's new A+ category contract worth INR 7 crore (USD 1 million approx.) and it came to be on the suggestion of the current Indian captain Virat Kohli and the former captain MS Dhoni.
Anil Kumble, the previous head coach, had initiated discussions about the pay structure, first among senior players and then with the Committee of Administrators (CoA). Last May, a month before he quit the job, Kumble made a presentation to the CoA and the BCCI top brass including the office bearers highlighting the need to remove the disparity in the salaries of Indian players and coaches as compared with the global benchmark established by bigger countries like Australia and England. It is understood that under Kumble's model, the top-end contract would be worth INR 5 crore.
In 2017, one of the first decisions the CoA took upon being appointed by the Supreme Court as caretaker of the BCCI was to double the retainers of the players across board. But having been apprised of the need to do more by Kumble, the CoA began looking at ways to upgrade the pay structure further. The two-member body comprising Vinod Rai (chairman) and Diana Edulji, along with the BCCI chief executive officer Rahul Johri then sought the players' views on the subject. They held multiple rounds of discussions involving Kohli, Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and the India head coach Ravi Shastri. It was during one of these sessions in December that the players recommended establishing the A+ category contract.
"This suggestion originated from Virat and MS in the discussions," Rai told ESPNcricinfo. The players wanted this category to be dynamic and to feature only the best performers.
"Their logic was this category would have only players featuring in all three formats, players who are in the top-10 rankings," Rai said. "They wanted a category of pure excellence where you perform and you are rewarded. And hence the players would not occupy a permanent slot in this category because if you don't perform then you slip down the order."
Among the five players shortlisted for the A+ category, Kohli, Rohit, Jasprit Bumrah and Shikhar Dhawan are inside the top-10 ICC rankings in different formats. Bhuvneshwar Kumar does not fit that criteria but has been instrumental in India's strength as a bowling unit at the start and end of a limited-overs innings.
"They wanted a category of pure excellence where you perform and you are rewarded. And hence the players would not occupy a permanent slot in this category because if you don't perform then you slip down the order"Vinod Rai on the logic behind the A+ contract
The players in this top-most category would be a "natural choice" for all three formats of the game. And that was why, a BCCI official said, Ajinkya Rahane missed out on an A+ contract.
Rai said neither the CoA nor the BCCI management was involved in the finalising the shortlist of players. That responsibility was instead left with the national selection panel comprising MSK Prasad, Sarandeep Singh and Devang Gandhi. They decided Test specialists and those in the top 15 of the ICC rankings would populate Grade A. It is also understood that the players shortlisted in B and C categories, limited-overs specialists, were primarily picked for their ODI performances only.
According to Rai, the senior players and Shastri wanted to make sure the "middle level" players, including the Test specialists, were compensated adequately. This was also part of Kumble's plan, where he wanted the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, who do not feature in lucrative tournaments like the IPL, to still earn comparably with players who hit T20 riches. "They said we don't care how much money they get as long as the middle-level players are paid handsomely. That is a very fair thing to say."
The CoA and Johri's team took these suggestions on board and devised the new player payment model. "I said now the pyramid would be flat on the top," Rai said. "If you look at a corporate salary structure, the CEO gets an X-amount, which is easily at least five times that of his No. 2. So what we did is we had five players at the top of the pyramid earning INR 7 crore. The next step - Grade A - are getting INR 5 crore followed by Grade B at 3 crore and Grade C 1 crore."